“Once you start to see them, you’ll never understand how you didn’t see them before,” writes Roman Mars in the first few pages The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design. From well-kept stairs that lead nowhere to bridge politics, stolen facades and much more, the statement is a prophetic one. Throughout this new book, authored with Kurt Kohlstedt, the host and creator of the now 10-year-old podcast 99% Invisible condenses a decade’s worth of exploration into the quotidian and often overlooked aspects of our daily lives into a sprawling 400-page tomb that exposes a cacophony of designed elements that shape cities both big and small; in turn, revealing a narrative centred around people and the places they call home.
While the city provided the ideal framework to orient the book’s six chapters, the numerous essays within are deliberately conceived as lenses to not only view urban spaces, but built environments of any scale. Ultimately, as Mars tells Azure, “it’s really about wherever you’re looking.” We caught up with the American radio producer to learn more about the process behind the New York Times best selling book, the stories that formed it and his hope for readers to take a more active role in – and find renewed appreciation for – their respective cities.
What was the impetus behind translating your now 10-year-old podcast 99% Invisible into a publication? Was there certain opportunities that only a book afforded you?
- Roman Mars
I’ve run the show for 10 years now and, as a result, there is all of this information and this world view we have established locked up in a rigid, linear format. I tell you: “Here is the start of the show and here is the end of the show. If you’ve got 25 minutes, I’ll tell you about this topic.” I wanted to break from that. The book formant allows you to go through stories, peruse it, check things out and form your own narrative and view of the world. Another opportunity was the ability to include visuals.
On that note, an interesting aspect of the publication compared to the podcast and the corresponding articles you publish, which you use photographs found online or archival images, is that the entire book features custom illustrations by Patrick Vale. What was the thinking behind these graphics?
What I’ve always loved about this show is that our approach to design is about problem solving and storytelling, not about the images. We are a podcast; we can’t really convey what things look like but we can describe it in words. I always knew that the book would have images, which would make things more clear and would have resonance. But, I always wanted those elements to be abstracted. First of all, aesthetically, I wanted a beautifully designed object and a group of photographs over the course of 400 pages does not have the same visual continuity as a series of line drawings. The other part was that Patrick Vale, the illustrator, was so good at having almost scientific detail when an illustration needed to be focused and a kind of abstract sense of line and shape when it didn’t. It was kind of perfect — clear, but also a playful messiness. The illustrations cross the gamut of having a consistent visual language and also having an intense variety like the stories, because they go all over the place.
I can imagine that collaborating with an illustrator was a new experience for you. What was that process like?
We were trying to keep text and visuals working together to make a cohesive designed object, so if it wasn’t for the book designer Raphael Geroni it could have so easily gone off the rails. But, it was just a problem that needed to be solved; it was a fascinating puzzle. But, it was on an entire other level than writing the book. It was a gigantic project in and of itself.
At first, we made a huge spreadsheet of all the essays we were considering and all images we thought we needed. And then Patrick came in and said, “I think it should be an image of this and another image of this here.” And then he would draw that. He just added so much. It was kind of amazing. I’m always so blown away by other people’s work. Patrick would just show us an illustration and I would be like: “It’s perfect!”
99% Invisible the podcast looks at a range of objects and situations — from Ouija boards and Bauhaus photography to the romance between Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. What about the city made it the central framing device for the book?
I think the first idea that I grabbed onto for doing this book was something that Kurt Kohlstedt had mentioned, which was the Field Guide as an idea. I had been approached about doing a book early on but, after 10 years of doing the show, I didn’t want to just do an easy translation of it into print. The Field Guide was my way in and to get excited about it. By using some of the elements of the Field Guide, you can start to tell your stories based objects or things that you come across.
When I went out and pitched the book, I presented it as as series of volumes: a guide to the city, a guide to roads and highways, etc. Every publisher was immediately like: “Hold your horses. Let’s just do one book before you do three.” Though I wanted to have these different Field Guides, the city one was the one that made the most sense. The city has the richest amount of things to cover, amount of things to see in a dense area and was just an ideal way to focus the book. I never wanted the publication to represent all the show, because there is almost no way to do that. The show views design through a very broad lens. A book like that is perhaps too broad and might be meaningless to people. So, this was a fun exercise to focus that view. It probably means that there’s more books to be made in the end.
The book is divided into six chapters — Inconspicuous, Conspicuous, Infrastructure, Architecture, Geography and Urbanism — that are further parcelled into sub-categories. How did these themes emerge from a decade’s worth of material?
The first one that emerged was the idea of invisible and visible things. I wanted to introduce the concept of 99% Invisible to people who had never heard of the show or to people with no idea of what a podcast is. The idea of things that are visible but appear invisible because of how they work is a big concept of the show. And, how you think your way through the design elements of the city. Once we had the idea of conspicuous and inconspicuous, then it was possible to look at the different levels of how a city is built: the infrastructure, the architecture, the geography. They almost sort themselves.
The final chapter is on urbanism because so much of what we have seen over the last 10 years, so much of what we’re interested in and so many of the stories we tell about the city are actually about the the interaction between the people who live there and the designers behind it. It’s that conversation, that back and forth with one influencing the other that contains so many good stories. That’s what really makes a city.
We wanted to ensure that there was space so people knew that this was a Field Guide of a certain place and time. In our stories, we often cover almost a millennia in urban centres. But, in fact, cities are this ever evolving thing you can get involved in — and people do get involved to influence their cities in interesting ways. Having these five chapters preceding with the history of how we got to where we are now helps arm you with the ability to change where we go from here. And, that’s what the last chapter is kind of about.
Much of the book involves unpacking easily overlooked elements that contribute to urban form. In a sense, this is also about power — the agency of designers and policy makers as opposed to many of us who are the recipients or inhabitants. Is it your hope that readers are able to see these exercises of power more clearly?
I really want people to be engaged with their city. It doesn’t mean they have to engage with something to change it. They could be engaging their city in a way that they appreciate it or engage the city in way where they can leave this book and also have warm feelings, like I do, towards well made roads, beautiful bridges and well considered urban design. If they’re siting in front of a construction worker holding a stop sign interrupting their day, maybe they take a second and realize: “Oh I remember, I like these things that they are building. Maybe I should chill the fuck out and just let it happen because it has to be built at some point.” This appreciation for making a better city can imbue your spirit with the idea of being patient and empathetic.
I think there is so much to engage with. This doesn’t necessarily mean things that need to change, but it can just be about appreciation. All of these types of engagement make for a better city or a better town. I don’t want to reinforce that the word city means New York or Toronto or San Francisco. A city of 40,000 people has a lot of these same issues. The whole idea of this being a guide to city is a tongue in cheek concept.
Is there going to be a Field Guide to rural areas coming next?
We actually cover a lot of rural areas through things like roads, highways, infrastructure and even the chapter on Geography. For example, the essay on the Jeffersonian Grids, among various other things, represent how we carve up our land, share it or steal it. It’s about rural areas as much as cities. Even though it’s a guide to the city, it’s really about wherever you’re looking.
You touch on that in the introduction when you write: “You’re about to see stories everywhere.” It’s a beautiful and accurate statement as design, whether big or small, is ultimately a story of the people who made it. Are there any stories in the book that you’re particularly fond of?
I think one of the special or essential stories from the show that was translated into the book was the story of the Thomassons. There’s a piece about these vestigial elements in the city that have been maintained and caught the attention of Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei. One is the story of a staircase that goes up and back down, but there was no door at the top. He was fascinated by the idea that a piece of the railing for the stairs had been recently painted. It was a maintained thing that had no function. It’s not super common, but it’s common enough that when you’re walking and aware you’ll find things like this. You’ll find a post office box that may be welded shut, but also has been painted recently. He just saw these things everywhere and people had this big conversation about their city and how it evolved. I like it because it allows you to find wonder in the most mundane things and have a little bit of joy in exploration. That’s the type of thing I like show.
What elements of urban form and urban life have yet to be addressed that you are still interested in exploring?
A lot of people ask me if I ever feel like I am going to run out of subjects. The answer is: absolutely not. I only run out of time to do it. One of the big projects we’ve been working on for two years, one that Katie Mingle on my staff has been at the longest, is around homelessness. It took this long to get to know that many people and put together this series that I think will be an incredible leap forward for us as a show.
We are still kind of a history show and we consider design through a long view. We often cover things long after they’ve been out because we’re most interested in the response and reaction of the world to things rather than a new problem solving technique. We like to see what actually happens afterwards. For us to cover a contemporary issue and speculate as to where we go is a different type of investigative journalism for us. And, that’s an area I want to explore more. What I hope is that, like other stories about parts of the urban environment, all of a sudden people see this issue differently or see for the first time, even though its been in front of them all along. That’s always the thinking.
“Even though it’s a guide to the city,” says the podcaster of his new publication with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “it’s really about wherever you’re looking.”